Salmonella outbreak ratchets up food safety concerns

After antibiotic-resistant salmonella strikes hundreds of people, experts say stricter government controls are needed

Federal food safety workers who monitor dangerous bacteria were recalled from furlough to track a salmonella outbreak linked to Foster Farms chicken which has infected 317 people.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP

After a particularly nasty strain of salmonella sickened more than 300 people across 20 states in the midst of the federal government shutdown, the regulatory agencies charged with monitoring the nation's food supply suddenly seemed a little more essential.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) warned the public in early October that hundreds of people were infected with antibiotic-resistant salmonella that it traced to three Foster Farms chicken plants in California.

Salmonella, a bacterium that's sometimes found in meat, causes unpleasant digestive conditions in people who ingest it. Many cases of salmonella take care of themselves within a few days, but if the bacterium infects the blood, there's a good chance a hospital visit is involved.

So when regulatory agencies had to face this outbreak armed with only a fraction of their staffs, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) scrambled to counter the media uproar about furloughed safety inspectors and reinstated most of Pulsenet, the group that investigates multi-state outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

Still, more than a few issues were raised by the kerfuffle. While Foster Farms assured the public that it was working with the CDC and the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) to implement new safety procedures, and therefore would not need to shutter the affected plants, the media outcry about salmonella has continued.

"We should all steer clear at least of Foster Farms chicken, or any of the other brands produced in that company's California plants, although they're not all labeled such," wrote New York Times opinion writer Mark Bittman in a much-cited op-ed on Wednesday.

Regardless of whether readers or regulators agree with Bittman, the fact remains that 12 percent of retail chicken in the U.S. contains salmonella, according to the FDA. And this particular strain of salmonella, called Heidelberg, is resistant to a few common types of antibiotics that are used to treat human illnesses, which food safety experts say is a huge problem.

"The simple way to explain it," says Sarah Klein, a senior staff attorney for the advocacy group  Center for the Science in Public Interest (CSPI), "is that when the food industry gives animals medications in low doses to promote their growth and to keep them alive in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, it's a breeding ground for bacteria that is not in fact killed off, but becomes stronger when being exposed to antibiotics at low levels."

That eventually makes the salmonella resistant to certain antibiotics that are also used to treat human illnesses, Klein said, so if humans then become infected with it, it can be extremely difficult to treat.

For this particular strain of salmonella, that is indeed the case. Of the 317 people sickened by the Heidelberg strain so far, 42 percent were hospitalized and 13 percent had blood infections. That's more than twice the customary 5 percent blood infection rate in any given salmonella outbreak, according to the CDC.

Thankfully, no one has died.

A 'voluntary request'

Food and agriculture safety experts say there's a sizeable hole in the regulatory mechanisms that keep antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella like Heidelberg at bay.

That's because FSIS doesn't have the authority to shut down plants run by companies like Foster Farms where chicken has become contaminated with the strain.

Rather, FSIS can only ask the company to voluntarily recall the chicken, a limitation imposed back in 2001 when a federal court of appeals ruled that the USDA couldn't force Texas-based meat company Supreme Beef Processors to shut down its facilities after the agency said it had failed multiple salmonella tests.

The USDA requires meat processors to keep their products contaminant-free according to safety procedures that include regular salmonella testing, but the appeal ruling essentially set a precedent that salmonella's presence alone wasn't enough to allow the government to shut a facility down.

"The U.S. assumption has been that it is too difficult to get salmonella out of the food supply," says Steven Roach, a senior analyst at advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working, a coalition of health and science organizations including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The 2001 ruling has shifted more of the safety burden over to the companies that process the meat and, ultimately, to the livestock farmers. 

Roach believes farmers should start by limiting the use of antibiotics to animals that are sick. "In terms of the salmonella, an important thing is that we really need to go back to the farm," he says. "Part of the problem is that the USDA has been reluctant to require the famers to do anything about it on the farm."

That could be difficult, given that 70 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States go to healthy animals that are raised for human consumption, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 2012, the FDA instated a voluntary policy asking farmers to limit antibiotics in animals raised as food to "judicious use," meaning only when necessarily to prevent illness. That new voluntary policy came about after a federal judge ruled in favor of a group of advocacy organizations, including the NRDC and CSPI, that had sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Memory as short as shelf life

Foster Farms did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera about the salmonella outbreak. While the company has so far identified the three California-based plants where the Heidelberg-infected chicken likely originated, it did not shut them down or recall the chicken. It said in a release that it was working with FSIS to update and adhere to safety procedures.

Foster Farms also said that if chicken is cooked to at least an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the salmonella is killed and the chicken is safe to eat.

"Salmonella is naturally occurring in poultry and can be fully eradicated if raw product is properly handled and fully cooked," said Dr. Robert O'Connor, the food safety chief and head veterinarian of Foster Farms.

But a San Francisco branch of retail giant Costco recalled almost 9,000 rotisserie chickens from its store shelves — that's 40,000 pounds of chicken, all of it cooked — out of concern for the salmonella outbreak. 

"I think that in general, companies who are suffering through outbreaks are hoping that the consumer's memory is as short as the shelf life of some of these foods," said CSRI's Klein. "Frankly, the sad thing about food safety is that there's another food outbreak around the corner. Companies may choose to just plow ahead and hope that they'll be forgotten with the next major disaster."

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